BATON ROUGE, La. — Less than three weeks before her mysterious removal from a high-profile case against a south Louisiana sheriff, a federal judge called an eyebrow-raising break in a hearing that marked a major breakthrough for the Justice Department’s investigation.

On Feb. 23, U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi was accepting a first round of guilty pleas from several government witnesses against Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal when a familiar face appeared in the courtroom. Minaldi interrupted the proceedings and invited the spectator, a retired federal judge, to meet with her privately outside the courtroom, according to three people who attended the Feb. 23 hearing. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Retired U.S. District Judge Richard Haik Sr. wasn’t an impartial observer to the proceedings in Minaldi’s courtroom that day. Not only is Haik a cousin of Ackal, but he also served as one of the sheriff’s attorneys when he was indicted two weeks later on civil rights charges. Nine former employees of the sheriff’s office have pleaded guilty to charges related to the alleged beatings of jail inmates.

Minaldi and Haik met for about five to 10 minutes outside the presence of prosecutors and defense attorneys before they returned to the courtroom, the witnesses said. Minaldi resumed the hearing and finished accepting guilty pleas from five former employees of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office without mentioning the meeting, they said.

Minaldi’s private meeting with Haik wasn’t the only unusual occurrence in the cases against Ackal’s subordinates before they were reassigned to a different judge without an explanation.

At a hearing March 7, two days before the sheriff was indicted, Minaldi was in the middle of accepting guilty pleas by two former sheriff’s deputies when a federal prosecutor cut her off mid-sentence and asked to speak to the defense attorney. Then, after a short break and private discussion with the attorneys, Minaldi adjourned the hearing without giving a reason on the record.

Those two former deputies pleaded guilty later that day more than 70 miles away, in front of a different judge. Just four days later, the case against the sheriff and his subordinates was transferred to a different judge. No explanation was given for the switch.

Now, with his trial approaching, the sheriff is challenging the change.

The sheriff’s attorney, John McLindon, argues the reassignment violated court rules and apparently was done without Minaldi’s consent. On Friday, he asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to transfer Ackal’s case back to Minaldi.

Transcripts for the interrupted guilty plea on Feb. 23 don’t include any mention of Haik or his meeting with Minaldi. It’s unclear if Minaldi knew of Haik’s connection to Ackal before their meeting, but two of the witnesses say Haik spoke up near the end of the proceedings and objected to sealing an indictment.

In June, Haik and two other attorneys withdrew from representing the sheriff without explanation. He later said his discussion with Minaldi was unrelated to the sheriff’s case.

“I would not do that, and she would not do that,” Haik said in July. “I know better. She knows better.”

McLindon initially challenged the switch in judges in a court filing last week. Chief Judge Dee Drell denied McLindon’s request in a two-sentence order that simply said it was “without merit.”

Minaldi and Drell haven’t responded to requests for comment since last Friday.

This story has been corrected to show that District Judge Richard Haik is Sr., not Jr.